Rich Mahoney is the director of robotics engineering at SRI. He has more than 20 years of experience in the development and research of robotics. He holds a BS and an MS from Drexel University in Pennsylvania and a PhD in engineering from the University of Cambridge, England. In this interview he talks about current developments in the robotics industry and potential uses of robotics in our daily lives as well as the future of this fascinating field.
Sramana Mitra: Rich, let’s start with a bit of context. Give us an overview of where you think robotics sits today.
Rich Mahoney: This is my 25th year in robotics. I started in 1988 as a graduate student, and robotics itself emerged in the 1960s as a manufacturing technology in Boston and Silicon Valley, where the first demonstrations of industrial robotics were gaining traction. In the late 1980s you started seeing a lot of work on extending applications outside of manufacturing and thinking about human–machine interaction. I spent the first 20 years of my career working on applications of robots for people with disabilities.
In the whole 25-year-period there have been a couple of false starts, where the media would say that this is the decade of robotics. At the end of the day, that fizzled. I think we are in a similar situation now, where robotics is ramping up. There is definitely a surge in the development of robotics technologies beyond traditional manufacturing applications. Specifically, these are robots that are working in applications that are more interactive with people – instead of having a robot in a cage, you have one that is designed to work collaboratively with a person for lots of different kinds of applications. The trend is pushing towards that at the moment. I often talk about robotics not as a separate technology anymore, but as part of a technology continuum that includes consumer electronics, personal computing, etc. It is really the technology that allows you to extend and interact with the physical world. It is an interaction between the physical and the information worlds.
Because of that, robotics is benefiting from 30 or 40 years of personal computing that we have just gone through, and all of the infrastructure in terms of software, structuring capability, networking, data storage, and now emerging sensors for mobile computing. Those all are robotics technologies, and they are now available and are relatively inexpensive. As part of this trend, you are seeing more technologies for service applications, but the mobility and manipulation technologies are now starting to emerge. They are also more in a price range that looks like personal computing. It is more in the thousands of dollars range instead of the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars range.